Director of the Creative Writing Program at SUNY New Paltz Dennis Doherty has recently released his third book of poetry, “Crush Test,” through Codhill Press. Doherty is also the author of two other poetry volumes, “The Bad Man” and “Fugitive,” but with this particular volume, he said that he created a routine to make writing the most important thing of his day.
In the beginning of the spring 2009 semester, Doherty said he began to take whatever idea came into his head and just write about it.
“I preach to my students that once you fall into a habit, that habit of work becomes really productive really quickly,” he said.
He said that many of the poems were written in blank verse, channeling poets like Richard Wilbur and Robert Frost.
“When you’re writing in a particular moment in your life, when you go into deep meditative mode, the same thing is coming up from different angles and different ways. I feel that in this book more than my other books the poems are really more psychically connected to each other,” he said.
With the 35 poems in “Crush Test,” Doherty said one of the main themes is not accepting the world as it’s been handed to you. Taught by bad teachers and filled with guilt by the Catholic Church, Doherty said he felt awkward that he didn’t “fit in the world.”
“Most of that was a lie handed to me by lazy people who didn’t think,” he said. “I realized that the world is my own doing and what I make of it. I think somehow those questions are connected in the poems I was writing.”
Some poems, like “Stairway to Hell” and “Stairway to Hell Part 2,” reflect on Doherty’s early childhood experiences of being told by nuns that God was always in his head. He said he had become very obsessive compulsive about his thoughts and tried to block out what he was thinking so God couldn’t hear it. When he told his atheist mother about what the nuns had said, her response made him decide to stop going to church.
“This woman that had sent me to religious instruction every week and had me confirmed said, ‘Oh Dennis, there’s no such thing as God,’” he said.
Another poem, “Epic,” brings up many technological references, like Facebook. Doherty said he was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s “A Hero with One Thousand Faces,” where the epic hero in various cultures and mythologies is always doing something very similar in each legend.
“The hero’s journey is really metaphorically the psychic journey that individuals have to take. I found it really inspiring,” he said.
And, like in “Epic,” he said there is almost always a trip to the underworld or to Hell.
“I don’t know what I was thinking in terms of techonolgy but I started writing about what happens when all of your demons come at you and they rob you of all your technology and all the things you feel define you,” he said. “I’m really looking at your generation. What do you do if Facebook goes insane on you or you don’t have your cell phone and you have to suddenly get up on your own feet and go on this retrieval?”
The title of the volume and one of the poems, “Edge Crush Test (40 Pounds),” came from Doherty seeing a box outside that said ‘Edge Crush Test, 40 Pounds’ and he thought the idea of boxes being tested for crushing was an interesting concept. He said he started writing about the box from there, and then about himself and his own “crush tests.” The nightly writing routine caused Doherty to be slower in returning students’ work, as he was teaching four classes during that spring semester.
“Don’t get me started on my workload and how unfair that is, and how I’m expected to be a writer and teaching four or five classes a semester,” he said. “If you want a creative writing teacher who’s a writer, you have to have let him write.”
Doherty is currently teaching two sections of Creative Writing I, one section of Creative Writing II and Short Story.
Doherty has also written a novel but is not currently pushing for publication due to lack of time. However, publishing poetry has been easier because with each book he was approached by the publishers themselves. With “Crush Test,” he finished the book completely during the summer of 2009, sat on it for a year and then sent it to the publisher in summer of 2010. It was finally published October 2010.
The cover design of “Crush Test” was not of his choosing but Doherty said he likes how it looks. The picture is a detail of a larger self-portrait by the man who designed the book.
Although it is clear Doherty isn’t going to stop writing poetry, he said he knows the reality of what poetry is in the modern world.
“Poetry is not part of our popular culture any longer. I don’t want to blame modernism for the fall of poetry but that was a period of great avant-garde experimentation.”
He said that through the new era, modernism became more cerebral and intellectual.
“With that comes that sense of dread people have when you tell people you’re a poet or that you write poetry. There’s just not much of an interest in it anymore,” he said.
He said that unlike music or visual arts, people are daunted by poetry because of worrying about the meaning.
“That’s too bad that it would stop them from enjoying the aesthetics of beautiful language,” he said.
On Saturday, Nov. 6 at 3 p.m., Doherty will read from “Crush Test” at Opus 40 in Saugerties, N.Y. There will be an open mic for anyone who would like to read poetry afterwards. He will also be signing and selling copies of his three books.
“Opus 40 is a beautiful place and I am honored to be asked to read there,” said Doherty.